Recently, a friend who works in college administration told me a disturbing story. His office had been assigned the often difficult task of assisting college students in voting. This can be complicated in conservative states with strict ID laws, early registration limitations and residency requirements. In his state, all voters were required to have a mailing address, which can be a challenge for students living in dorms. Like with the Native Americans in North Dakota, a P.O. Box was not acceptable.
In response, my friend’s college – in a solution given by the State’s Election Board – had assigned every dorm student an actual mailing address even though their mail came through a central P.O.Box. However, when my friend arrived at his local clerk’s office a few days before the registration deadline with over 200 registrations, the Republican clerk announced that both the street address and the P.O. Box must be listed. My friend replied this would be no problem and asked for the registrations back so he could make the corrections. To which the clerk announced, “It is illegal for me to return these to you. They’ll just have to be destroyed.” Fortunately, my friend immediately contacted the State’s Election Board and eventually resolved the situation in a manner that allowed those students to vote.
I tell this story to illustrate one of the most under investigated problems in the United States – voter suppression. Indeed, I have been amazed at how often, in the past few years, the media and political pundits have analyzed the election of Donald Trump and other disturbing voting patterns with little reference to intentional vote suppression. This negligence is especially disturbing after reading Carol Anderson’s recent book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.”
In her book, Anderson offers a thorough and well documented survey of voter suppression past and present. She demonstrates how voter participation, especially by minorities, has recently been attacked in manners reminiscent of Jim Crow voting laws. She also highlights how the transformation of one of our political parties – the Republican Party – into a white dominated and focused organization has brought racism and white supremacist sentiments into nearly all voter legislation and practice. In many ways, the Republican party of 2019 has become an ugly replica of the Democratic Jim Crow party of 1950. This unholy alliance – then and now – between political party and racism casts suspicions on election integrity. In other words, did the Republican clerk dispute my friend’s college registrations in defense of electoral integrity or because he knew many of those college registrants were minority voters?
While in theory, every US citizen above the age of 18 has the right to vote; in practice, access to voting rights has been increasingly impaired by both legislative obstacles and bureaucratic devices, most of which have been introduced and championed by Republicans. Under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, laws have been passed and voting rolls have been purged with an inordinate impact on minorities, but a debilitating impact on all lower income Americans. Indeed, the Electoral Integrity Project, in a recent report found that 2016 elections in North Carolina did not meet the same benchmarks and measurements used to measure free elections in other nations. They found many of the same electoral corruptions they had identified in recent elections in Iran and Venezuela.
This, of course, is not a new situation in the United States. For most of the 20th century, US law and practice was intentionally designed to limit voting rights, targeting both women and minorities. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, a series of Jim Crow laws allowed many states to severely limit black registration and voting. According to Anderson’s research, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black registration in southern states was limited to about 10-20% of the black population. After the VRA, minority registration soared to a record 62% within five years and continued to grow slowly thereafter. It can be argued that, when it comes to voting, the United States only became fully democratic in the 1960s. Until the VRA, the United States had largely been a white male oligarchy.
Unfortunately, the gains made during the years of the federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act may be in serious peril. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, essentially stripping the Department of Justice of a role in approving voter related legislation and monitoring elections. The conservative majority argued the election of Barack Obama suggested racial discrimination no longer hindered voter participation. This ruling immediately led to an avalanche of largely Republican sponsored legislation designed to suppress minority voter access. These efforts focused on two primary strategies.
Voter ID Laws
State after state, under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, instituted voter ID laws. Though these laws often included requirements in direct violation of the VRA, the Department of Justice no longer had the power to challenge these devices. Again and again, studies find that these laws inordinately impact the poor and people of color. In my home state of Indiana, though the laws technically offered free ID cards, they required a birth certificate to obtain an ID. In truly Byzantine hypocrisy, Indiana law also required ID in order to obtain a copy of your birth certificate. Additionally, most ID laws require the updating of all address changes, a major impediment for working class people who tend to be more transient and less able to make repeated trips to BMV offices. While all of this might seem justifiable if voter fraud was rampant, Republican led investigations have never exposed more than a handful of voter fraud cases.
Voter Roll Purges
Making it difficult for new minority voters to register is only half of the Republican strategy. The other half of the voter suppression campaign involved purging voter rolls in such a way as to eliminate thousands of minority voters. Indeed, in many Republican states, millions of registered voters have been wiped from the rolls on technicalities and without due process. In many cases, though the VRA still prohibits such activity, those who did not vote in the most recent elections were summarily removed. In other cases, a data base with serious flaws was used to eliminate people who were allegedly voting in multiple states. Though a Kansas investigation found only a single incidence of this occurring in a recent election, millions of voters were eliminated from the rolls because they shared similar names or birth dates with people in other states.
These two strategies, designed to allegedly defend the integrity of our elections, have actually resulted in the very opposite – elections where thousands of minority people arrived at the polling sites in 2016 and 2018 to be turned away. In Wisconsin, black voting rates dropped from 78% in 2012 to less than 50% in 2016. Fifty thousand less votes were counted in Milwaukee County in an election where Donald Trump only won the state by 27,000 votes. Across the United States, there was a drop in black voting by 7% in an election where Donald Trump repeatedly said things that should have inspired black voter turnout. In Republican controlled states, the downturn in black voter turnout was as high as 14%. In Anderson’s book, she outlines in great detail instances in state after state where minority voter turnout decreased for the first time in 50 years. All of this occurring after the Supreme Court claimed racial discrimination was no longer a serious factor in US elections.
Ironically, the Supreme Court – while acknowledging the election of our first freely elected African-American president – failed to factor in an expected racist backlash from those who found his election repugnant. Those opposed to his presidency essentially oppose a country where free and fair elections result in African-American presidents.
Make no mistake. There is a significant portion of the US white population who would return to the days of Jim Crow. The actions of the Republican Party in the past five years demonstrate this desire. Indeed, the election of an unapologetic racist President was facilitated by their electoral shenanigans. Perhaps their party is well named, for they seem more intent on a white republic than a genuine democracy. Though the Democratic Party is guilty of its own excesses, few would dispute its desire to see all people vote.
If knowledge is power, all those who believe in and hope for a vibrant democracy would do well to spend a few evenings reading Carol Anderson’s “One Person, No Vote.”